State of the C-suite: How executive career paths became so difficult to maneuver

C-suite
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When the World Economic Forum convened in Davos earlier this week, many observers noted a welcome change in the leadership among its key organizers.

For the first time in its long history, the seven co-chairs of the annual gathering of politicians, CEOs and other senior executives were all women, representing an equally diverse cross-section of sectors such as finance, nuclear energy and technology.

The move towards greater diversity and inclusion has arguably never been more important in organizations of all kinds following the #MeToo movement of the past six months. Within B2B organizations, however, a different kind of shakeup is going on, and it’s not nearly as easy to sort out.

Established roles in marketing, sales and information technology are being completely transformed by digital tools and processes, for instance, creating a gap in skills and resources necessary to execute on key objectives. In some cases, this is causing those who started out leading one line of business, like finance or marketing, taking on oversight or the core responsibilities for IT or other functions.

In other cases there are changes in reporting structures, where CIOs might report into CMOs, for instance. And as issues around data and security continue to evolve, some organizations are debating the merits of new executive roles such as chief data officer, chief risk officer and so on. For anyone aspiring to join the leadership team within the enterprise — or for anyone who wants to stay in such a position — it may be getting harder to understand what a successful career path in the C-suite looks like anymore.

C-Suite NKOTBs

According to Jamie Hoobanoff, founder at Toronto-based recruiter The Leadership Agency, the C-Suite has always been in a state of flux to some degree, but the rise of startups, where titles tend to be more fluid and creative, has had a direct influence on how larger entities are organizing themselves. The drive to get more done and making better use of resources, meanwhile, may mean that we’ll see fewer vice-president or director titles in organizations over time, as C-Suite leaders get more hands-on with mastering the strategies that make use of various technologies and ensuring outcomes are met.

Jamie Hoobanoff,
The Leadership Agency

The C-Suite always has a new kid on the block,” she said, noting that the role of chief operating officers (COOs), for example, has been slowly fragmenting to roles that focus on more specific technologies and activities. “Organizations are getting very serious about having a voice for their product and value proposition. The other voice is the client and customer voice,” which is being represented by chief risk officers, chief customer officers and the like, she added.

The uncertainty around what areas need specific leadership, and how they should lead, is driving considerable experimentation in some organizations. Andy Coghlan, global head of MarTech at Wipro Digital, said one of his firm’s clients employed both a CIO and a chief digital officer (CDO). Those two people wound up swapping jobs for a six-month period just so they could gain a better understanding of each other’s day-of-day priorities and opportunities.

Even in areas like sales and marketing, Coghlan said, there is sometimes a lack of visibility into how leadership operates. While this may be leading CMOs to take on more of a CIO or CDO role in some cases, he recommended the C-Suite as a whole should look more carefully at Agile methodologies of working, and weave design thinking into the way they pursue the company’s goals.

“Those people who have been successful have found that actually the business and marketing (groups) are often the laggards in the way they work. They’re still doing ‘last year plus or minus’ based on what the results were,” he said. “They’e not exploiting the capability that they have.”

Back To Leadership Basics

Rather than changing job titles or creating new ones, C-suite leaders might need to get back to the fundamentals necessary to make their teams successful no matter what their area of focus, said Martin Lanik, CEO of a leadership development firm called Pinsight. These may be more critical than the technical background that differentiates a CMO or head of sales today.

Leaders tend to be either task-oriented and focus on getting things done or high-level individuals who focus on things like branding or delegating to others, said Lanik, who has authored a forthcoming book called The Leader Habit. His research shows that much of what makes any kind of leader effective comes down to a set of behaviours — such as showing employees how to do something rather than merely telling them, for instance. These behaviours, however, have rarely been codified in a way that makes transferring knowledge about leadership straightforward in the enterprise.

Martin Lanik,
author, The Leader Habit

“The only way you can actually become a more effective leader is through deliberate practice of the behaviours,” said Lanik, who added he has observed a decline in the corporate “university” or formalized management training in some firms in favour of more targeted classes and e-learning modules. “It’s not a matter of going to a strategic retreat in the mountains. It’s sticking with it and doing it for at least two months.”

Developing or attracting leaders isn’t easy no matter the size of the organization easier, said Hoobanoff. Only about 12 per cent of C-suite hires are hired internally among most startups, she said, because their fast growth often means there are few ready to take on the larger management responsibilities. Enterprise firms, meanwhile, are not exactly known for their speed.

“Large organizations are built primarily on legacy. There’s a lot of due diligence, a lot of rigour, a lot of process inherited over the years. That doesn’t allow them to be as adaptable or as agile. There are lots of firms who think, ‘We should have a chief digital officer,’ but just imagine what that would look like to get approved.”

From C-Suite To CX

While digital transformation may have lead to some of the upheaval in executive ranks today, Coghlan said CMOs, CIOs and their peers will eventually morph into roles more focused around the way they contribute to customer experiences.

“You need to be customer-centric, to be outside- and experience-led,” he said, adding that firms which do so will be “reaching a state where you are in a place to exploit the next big trend rapidly.”

Organizations could also look at other objectives — whether it’s increasing operational efficiency or improving the bottom line — and tying those to the way they manage talent, rather than jump on a trend like artificial intelligence or blockchain and create a new role around it, said Lanik.

Andy Coghlan,
Wipro Digital

What I find is that the CEOs and C-suite executives who intuitively understand the link between the strategy and those outcomes —  but who also know you only achieve them through your people — those are the ones who are willing to invest in these behaviours,” he said, suggesting that the executive bench should be treated as an ongoing work-in-progress. “It’s not once-and-done.”

Hoobanoff also noted the vital role played by the CEO, even if she or he isn’t directly involved in every aspect of a C-suite hiring decision. These are the “visionaries” who influence what kind of direct reports become common in companies, whether they realize it or not.

“The only job that is common to all them is sales — as CEO, that pitch that they take to the venture capital table is the exact same pitch that leaders want to hear,” she said. “There needs to be cohesion and an easy way to transfer that message to front-line leaders.”

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Shane Schick

Shane Schick

Shane Schick is the Editor-in-Chief of B2B News Network. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and was the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.